Working to curb sexual assault

In 2009, President Obama was the first president to mark April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This April, I am heeding the president's call to be a partner in raising awareness on the issue of sexual violence and I hope you will join me.

This devastating crime warrants our focused attention because it is often misunderstood and incorrectly portrayed. Myths still dominate the collective thinking; victims are blamed and often shamed into silence. It's commonly believed that rape is something that only happens between strangers. This is not the case. Statistics show that the majority of rape victims know their perpetrator. Many believe that consent to sexual activity is a flexible concept up for debate. It is not.

Regardless of whether you or someone you know has been personally affected by sexual violence, you have only to read the newspaper or turn on the television to realize the extensive nature of its impact on our society. Sexual violence knows no boundaries. It reaches people of every age, race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Researchers estimate that about 18 percent of women in the United States report having been raped at some point in their lifetimes. For some populations, rates of sexual violence are even higher: nearly one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Many men are also victims of sexual violence.

But a deeper look at these numbers reveals another critical concern. Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes in America. Many victims will never seek justice for a host of reasons, including fear of not being believed, having to relive a traumatic experience or fear of retribution, to list a few.

The effects on victims and society are profound. Many rape victims suffer severe long-term physical and emotional difficulties. They experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even thoughts of suicide.

As a chilling example of its far-reaching grasp, studies show that one in four women will experience sexual assault over the course of their college career. To meet this astounding reality head on, last year various leaders from the Justice Department traveled to college campuses around the country to engage in frank conversations with school administrators and students about the impact of sexual violence on campus.

The level of sexual violence in tribal communities is particularly disturbing. In my own office, we have conducted consultations with the four tribal communities in Kansas to develop specific plans to improve public safety in those communities, and to prioritize prosecution of sexual assault of Native American women.

We view working for greater public safety not only as our job but as our moral imperative. Our greatest hope is that more citizens will join us in our quest to meet the needs of victims, hold offenders accountable and put an end to sexual violence.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 646-HOPE.

BARRY R. GRISSOM,

Kansas City, Kan.

Grissom is the United States Attorney for the District of Kansas.